The world's most illuminating experiences
2015 is the UN Year of Light – so make a beeline for these brilliantly bright, bedazzling places.
1. Aurora, Abisko, Sweden
The northern lights shimmer right across the polar regions – if solar activity is particularly exuberant you might even glimpse the lights as far south as Scotland. But, really, to maximise your chances of seeing aurora action, head for Abisko’s Aurora Skystation, nearly 200km north of the Arctic Circle and a long way from pretty much anything else. The surrounding mountains keep the skies almost always clear – light pollution is zero – and long winter nights provide the perfect black canvas for the heavenly glow.
2. Marfa Lights, Texas, USA
As illuminating experiences go, this one really isn’t – you can see the Marfa Lights flashing over the Chihuahuan Desert and still not have a clue what they are. About the size of basketballs, these odd reddish orbs flicker over Mitchell Flat, 16km east of Marfa. Witnesses say they split, merge and morph in a most peculiar fashion. Science hasn’t yet figured it out; head to the specially constructed viewing platform at Mitchell Flat and ponder for yourself.
Marfa is accessible via Highway 90. The nearest airport is El Paso, 305km west.
3. Lanterns, China
The Chinese have been celebrating the Lantern Festival for over 1000 years – though in many different forms. Over the centuries the end-of-winter event has included elements of Buddhist worship, riddle-solving, folk-dancing and even matchmaking (it was the one night of the year when girls were allowed out, perhaps to meet Mr Right). These days, it’s mainly an incandescent occasion, when streets countrywide are paraded by innumerable lanterns in all shapes and sizes, from traditional round-red to dramatic dragon shapes. Proceedings are particularly bright in Zìgòng, Sichuan province, where the festival has been celebrated since Tang times, and lantern-making has become a fine art.
The Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, usually February or March; 5 March in 2015.
4. Midnight sun, Svalbard, Norway
Wish there were more hours in the day? No problem, plan a summer trip to Svalbard. Nudging the North Pole, this Arctic archipelago has long, dark, gloomy winters but makes up for it come spring: in the capital Longyearbyen the midnight sun lasts from 15 April to 26 August. That’s more than four months of relentless rays, the sun never dipping below the horizon. Make the most of all this light – once the seas are accessible (usually from June), board an expedition cruise and spend the wee hours on deck watching calving glaciers, grunting walruses and polar bears patrolling the pack ice. Wild nights indeed.
5. Stars, NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
The vast NamibRand Nature Reserve is really, really dark, which is why it’s such a good place to see the light. Designated a gold-standard International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, this 202,200-hectare patch of private wilderness is a fence-free sanctuary for wildlife, and a blank slate for the universe. There is simply no light pollution here, and thus nothing to diminish the majesty of the southern hemisphere’s night sky. The reserve’s Sossusvlei Desert Lodge even has a state-of-the-art observatory, complete with Meade LX200R 12-inch telescope, so you can take an even more intimate look at all that glitters above.
6. Firefly squid, Toyama Bay, Japan
It’s like the sea is having a really big party. Every year, from March to May, the waters of north-central Honshu’s Toyama Bay, Japan, start to sparkle like a glitterball. The revellers responsible are weeny Watasenia scintillans – firefly squid. They measure just 7cm long and come here in their millions to spawn in spring. Their bodies are covered in photophores, light-producing organs that flash and pulsate in patterns of brilliant blue. Perhaps they do it to communicate, to confuse predators, or to attract prey – but they certainly manage to amaze.
Boat trips to see the squid run March to May, at around 3am; enquire at Namerikawa’s Hotaruika (firefly squid) Museum.
7. Fluorescence, Amsterdam, Netherlands
No need to indulge in the famed cafe narcotics to have your mind blown in Amsterdam – Electric Ladyland will do the job. It’s the world’s first (and surely only?) Museum of Fluorescent Art, where visitors descend into an underground dayglo gallery, full of surreal shapes and psychedelic bulges. In other rooms you can learn about the history of fluorescence and see large collections of rocks, which appear drab until they react radiantly to UV light.
The museum is at Tweede Leliedwarsstraat 5 (electric-lady-land.com).
8. Neon lights, Las Vegas, USA
According to NASA, Las Vegas is the brightest place on the planet. No surprise there: the glowing gamblers’ den has billions of bulbs, with an estimated 15,000 miles of neon tubing on the Strip alone. The result is a blazing hole in the Nevada Desert, from the tacky twinkles of Chapel O Love signs to the Luxor Hotel’s Sky Beam – the strongest beam in the world. However, don’t miss the Neon Museum Boneyard, where all those lights go to die.
The Neon Museum (770 Las Vegas Blvd) offers day and night tours (neonmuseum.org).
9. Glowworms, Waitomo, New Zealand
Descend into the Waitomo Caves on New Zealand’s North Island to meet Arachnocampa luminosa. Lots of them. Glowworms thrive here and while these slimy bugs don’t look so pretty when the lights are on, in the dark they sparkle like Christmas. Float through one of Waitomo’s caverns, by boat or by inflatable tube, and it’s like being in a fairytale: the 300-million-year-old labyrinth seems to have a ceiling of stars. That the gleam comes from a chemical reaction designed to lure in prey doesn’t decrease the magic.
Waitomo Caves is 200km (around a three-hour drive) south of Auckland; see waitomo.com.
10. Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Berlin never looks more brilliant than during its Festival of Lights. For 10 days each October, the landmarks and thoroughfares of the German capital become 3D canvases for a glittering array of art installations: they are projected onto buildings from 7pm until midnight, making the whole city a swirl of colour and creativity. ‘Lightseeing’ tours – by bus, boat, boot or segway – are available, but just eyeballing the illuminations is completely free.
The festival runs for 10 days in mid-October; a full programme can be found at festival-of-lights.de.